Avenatti represented a youth basketball coach who claimed he had evidence Nike had paid the families of top college basketball players, in violation of NCAA rules and, potentially, federal law. Avenatti demanded $1.5 million to buy his client’s silence, according to the complaint, and another $15 million to $25 million for Avenatti to conduct an internal investigation of the company, along with fellow attorney Mark Geragos.
“It’s worth more in exposure to me to just blow the lid on this thing,” Avenatti told the lawyers for Nike, according to the complaint. “A few million dollars doesn’t move the needle for me. I’m just being really frank with you.”
Arrested Monday on charges including extortion, bank fraud and wire fraud, Avenatti has maintained his innocence, and claims the quotes attributed to him by the FBI unfairly portray legal, hard-nosed negotiations. Regardless of their legality, however, Avenatti’s threats to inflict financial damage on Nike with information about illicit payments to the families of college basketball players were regarded as laughable, on strictly economic terms, by industry experts.
“I think the American public knows how corrupt amateur athletics are in the U.S., particularly when it comes to basketball,” said Matt Powell, senior adviser focused on sports footwear, apparel and equipment for NPD, a market research firm. “I don’t think it is terribly surprising to anyone who follows this stuff that Nike might have been paying some college players.”
For evidence, Powell said, look no further than Nike’s main competitor on the basketball shoe market: Adidas, which has been at the center of a pay-for-play scandal since late 2017 that has had no measurable impact on the company’s revenue or stock value.
But when it came to Nike, Avenatti — who did not respond to a request for comment for this story — apparently thought similar revelations would cause the company’s stock price to plummet. On a call recorded by the FBI, Avenatti told Nike’s lawyers he could cause the company’s market cap — essentially, the value of all Nike stock — to tumble $10 billion.
Nike has neither confirmed nor denied Avenatti’s allegations about payments to the families of top high school and college players. In a statement, the company said it reported Avenatti’s claims to federal prosecutors overseeing an ongoing investigation of corruption in college basketball.
“Nike firmly believes in ethical and fair play, both in business and sports,” the company said.
On Twitter this week, Avenatti has begun publicizing some of his client’s allegations, providing a real-world test of exactly how damaging the information he claims he has really might be on Nike’s stock. So far, the allegations have been not nearly as damaging as Avenatti predicted. Or damaging at all, really.
On Tuesday, when Avenatti started tweeting about players whose families he claimed Nike officials paid, the company’s stock price rose slightly, closing at $83.37. Tuesday night, Avenatti’s first public interview since his arrest aired, on CBS.
“The truth is, for years, Nike and its executives have been funneling payments to amateur players, high school players, and to their handlers and family members, in an effort to get them to go to colleges that were Nike colleges and hopefully to the NBA so they could sign a shoe deal with Nike,” Avenatti said on CBS.
On Wednesday morning, Nike stock dropped slightly. On Twitter, Avenatti began sharing what he claimed were text messages and bank records related to Nike payments, and the company’s stock closed the day down, at $83.08 a share.
On Thursday, Avenatti again tweeted periodically about Nike, including sharing a video of an impromptu interview with TMZ, headlined: “Michael Avenatti Vows Nike Exec Will End Up in Handcuffs.” Nike’s stock rebounded, closing the day up, at $84.18.
All told, through three days of Avenatti’s public relations assault on Nike, the company’s stock price had actually increased slightly. Nike’s market cap, which had opened the week at $129.5 billion, had not dropped $10 billion, as Avenatti had predicted, but rather had increased nearly $3 billion, to about $132.5 billion.
To Powell, the industry analyst, this came as no surprise.
“This is not a huge revelation. It’s not like they were paying the players to throw games or anything,” Powell said. “I don’t think the American public really cares.”